Omicron Spike tests COVID prevention efforts at immigration centers

The fast-spreading omicron variant tests the ability of US authorities to keep tens of thousands of migrants healthy in overcrowded detention centers, where COVID-19 prevention measures were virtually non-existent at the start of the pandemic but have declined. improved since.

More than 2,540 people tested positive for COVID-19 Friday at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 198 migrant detention centers nationwide, ICE data shows, an increase of more than 792. % compared to the 285 cases reported on January 3.

The surge comes amid a nationwide rise in infections due to the more transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Even so, ICE officials say they have come a long way since 2020 with COVID-19 protection for migrants in their care.

“In terms of improvement, the agency is more outgoing than it was before. But honestly, we are still seeing arrests and detentions the same way we saw at the start of the pandemic. …There are more procedures in place [such as] asking for releases, which was not the case before,” said Elena Noureddine, who runs the detention program for PAIR, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides free legal representation to asylum seekers and to detained immigrants.

2020 to 2022

In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, ICE did not say whether inmates were being tested for COVID-19. There were few or no opportunities for social distancing, no masks were given to inmates, and vaccines were not yet available.

At that time, an ICE spokesperson said there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those detained in its network of detention centers, for-profit prisons and county jails. . Confirming COVID-19 infections was difficult, with testing in its infancy.

FILE – In this Aug. 23, 2019 file photo, immigrants seeking asylum shop at a small store at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The isolation of at least three families at the center at that time raised fears that the coronavirus was spreading through the facility.

In January 2022, an ICE official told VOA that the agency now tests all migrants for COVID-19 during the admission screening process. After the test, they are housed separately from the general population for 14 days and monitored for symptoms. Those with symptoms are being isolated and receiving “appropriate medical care to manage the disease”, ICE said, in accordance with guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“New arrivals who have negative test results and show no symptoms may join the general inmate population after the 14-day intake period,” ICE told VOA via email.

Staff and inmates are required to wear masks even after vaccinations, per ICE pandemic response rules.

As for vaccines, 48,246 detainees had each received at least one dose of vaccine as of Jan. 5, according to the agency’s spokesman, and 671 had received boosters. ICE has been offering vaccines to migrants since July, when 27,670 migrants were in detention, and boosters since November, when 21,462 were in detention.

Versions at risk

Since the start of the pandemic, the American Civil Liberties Union has been working to ensure detained immigrants are protected from COVID-19, according to Eunice Cho, senior counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

“We have sued for the release of people – especially those who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19 – to be released from detention so they can truly be at home and practice safe social distancing. “, she added.

the University of California-Davis estimated in March 2021 that 42.5% of ICE-detained immigrants had at least one chronic condition and 95.6% had access to stable housing.

FILE - A guard passes a sign for CoreCivic at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, August 23, 2017, in San Diego.  The facility was at the center of the first major outbreak of the novel coronavirus at a migrant detention center in the United States in April 2020.

FILE – A guard passes a sign for CoreCivic at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, August 23, 2017, in San Diego. The facility was at the center of the first major outbreak of the novel coronavirus at a migrant detention center in the United States in April 2020.

Cho told VOA that thousands of people medically vulnerable to COVID-19 have been released by family members in the United States following litigation with the ACLU. VOA asked for more specific figures on the releases of medically vulnerable migrants, but received no response.

At the end of December, about 5,200 medically vulnerable immigrants remained in detention, according to information from CBS News. ICE told VOA that it “continues to assess its detained population…to determine if continued detention is appropriate.”

Problems remain

Cho of the National Prison Project said the government has acted during the pandemic to protect inmates from COVID-19 infections, but work remains to be done.

“People are reporting difficulty getting masks, getting tested for COVID-19. They report difficulties in getting vaccinated. … They describe conditions in which people, especially those who are medically vulnerable, do not feel safe. They describe conditions where in some detention centers they are given one disposable mask per week to wear all week,” Cho said.

In most cases, an ICE official told VOA, every migrant receives a vaccine in detention. But the average stay in ICE custody was 37 days in fiscal year 2021, meaning most migrants were no longer in custody to receive their second injection.

The ICE spokesperson told VOA that the agency encourages migrants to get vaccinated and boosted. But in July Axios reported that three in 10 inmates refused the COVID-19 vaccine when asked to sign consent forms.

Noureddine of Boston-based PAIR said part of the explanation for the skepticism among inmates is fear the government will ask them to sign documents in order to have them deported.

“I’ve had clients call me saying, ‘I’ve been presented with a document. I think it was because of the vaccine. I am not sure.’ [Then] I checked with ICE and they said it was to get me vaccinated, but there was a lot of confusion,” she added.

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